It takes a village idiot – sorry, I mean of course a ‘trickster’ – to vote No to Lisbon according to Fintan O’Toole… June 25, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Irish Politics, Uncategorized.
Oh dear. There’s something about Fintan O’Toole. I don’t know what. When he’s on form he’s good enough. He was better and I’m not sure what happened, but sometime around the mid 1990s I began to stop reading his pieces on a regular basis. When he’s not on form he’s a sort of anti-John Waters – whose work I still find near impossible not to give the once over, I fear the day he retires – churning out stuff which strays worryingly close to arguments about ineffable and impossible to determine arguments about ‘character’.
Not incidentally that Waters isn’t up to top form. He surely is, not least with his most recent column on Lisbon where:
If it could be said that the Irish electorate, after due consideration of the merits of the Lisbon Treaty, had decided to vote No, then this might be cause for all Irish democrats to celebrate. But that is not what happened last week. Judging from the intelligence thus far accumulated about what I will loosely call the logic underlying the vote, the most effective slogan of the campaign appears to have been, “If you don’t know, vote No”. The outcome, then, was a disgrace, not because of the content of the decision but because of the justifications offered for it.
We. Have. Disgraced. Ourselves.
But returning to O’Toole yesterday he provided a fascinating column in the Irish Times. For if the Lisbon Treaty exercises me as a political issue, for Fintan this is, in a curious echo of a John Waters text, a .’… hangover of evasion and duplicity in [Irish] political life…’.. And not just any hangover, as we shall see.
How so, you may enquire?
FORGET about the Eurobarometer surveys and the EU’s collective psychoanalysis of the Irish after the Lisbon debacle. If you really want to understand the nature of the contemporary Irish psyche and the way it has knocked the European project off course, think Carlsberg. I don’t mean to suggest that, when we voted on Lisbon, we were, as the old codger in The Fast Show used to say, “awfully drunk at the time”. I mean rather that there’s a set of Carlsberg ads tailored for the Irish market that could have been for the successful No campaign.
One is set in a bar in New York. A young Irishman leaves his mates and goes to chat up an attractive blonde woman sitting at the bar. She tells him that he has to either go back to his mates or face her hulking boyfriend who is just looming into view. Instead, he embraces her and introduces himself to her boyfriend as her brother. The other ad is set in a bar in some non-English-speaking country. The Irish lads are invited, in a threatening way, to do something Irish. The options are either to run like hell or start trying to dance a humiliating jig. Instead they start speaking bits of pigeon Irish as if it were soulful poetry: “Is maith liom cáca milis. Agus Sharon Ní Bheoláin.” The tag line for both ads is “It’s not just A or B. There’s probably always a C”.
I think I’m beginning to see what he’s getting at, but lest we stray from this rhetorical path he neatly spells it out…
It is a perfect encapsulation of the way we approached, and continue to approach, the whole Lisbon process. Option A is that we buy in, broadly speaking, to the European project and accept that the rules that can be agreed among 27 member states are inevitably compromises in which nobody gets quite what they want. Option B is that we pull back from that project into a semi-detached relationship with the EU. So we go for Option C, a vague belief that we can squirm away from the hard choices and through our marvellous charm, cunning and persuasiveness, get something completely different.
“Our” marvellous charm, cunning and persuasiveness? Surely not.
No, apparently according to Fintan, actually it is surely…
The view of the world that underlies those Carlsberg ads and the mentality expressed in our approach to Lisbon is a very old fantasy, embodied in the trickster. In folk tales, the trickster is a weak figure, an ordinary peasant, who gets one over on the strong – the king, the lords, the bishop – by evading and inventing, by ducking and weaving.
Good Christ. This is not merely an echo of Waters, it’s his schtick imported lock stock and smoking barrel directly into the heart of an O’Toole column. Because of course we are tricksters. It reminds me of the colloquial argument that used to be trotted out time and again that the Irish electorate was the ‘most sophisticated’ in the world because of the vast intricacy of our (not at all unique) proportional representation system of voting and the unlikely conjunctions that this threw up. Ah, how we laughed in the Workers’ Party at meetings during the 1980s as we pondered yet another centre right coalition brought to us by this miracle of cosmopolitan political complexity – the Irish voter (although surely the joke was on us in DL – and Labour – in the 1990s when we managed to deliver Fine Gael to the life support machine just in the nick of time?).
Of course the rather more prosaic truth was that the results of elections, and referendum tell us next to nothing about the character, or otherwise, of a people. Were we geniuses in 1995 with a divorce referendum that saw us bring it over the line by a few thousand, or merely indecisive? Neither, naturally. At that point in time more people, slightly, were persuaded that divorce would not usher in a social catastrophe than weren’t. Or what about the 1968 referendum on PR. One further demonstration of our savvy, or just a basic common sense response to an attempt to tip the playing field in a permanent Fianna Fáil direction. No. Dubious self-congratulatory cant about our peculiar genius as the economy slid ever further into decline didn’t quite cut it.
But to return to Fintan…
[The trickster] embodies the wish-fulfilment of the weak. You can’t shape the world, you can only poke it in the eye. As Robert Darnton has put it: “Tricksterism is a kind of holding operation. It permits the underdog to grasp some marginal advantage by playing on the vanity and stupidity of his superiors. But the trickster works within the system, turning its weak points to his advantage and therefore ultimately confirming it … Tricksterism provided a way of coping with a harsh society instead of a formula for overthrowing it.”
Well, yes and no. Let’s put aside the near-preposterous conflation of a political event, the Lisbon Treaty referendum and this unlikely concept of ‘tricksterism’ that we’re being asked to digest. Assume for one second that tricksterism exists at all in a substantial form… if so it is almost per definition an individual response rather than a collective or societal one, so therefore it seems reasonable to argue that it couldn’t possibly sit at the root of a transformational project. But that’s a big assumption. After all, why not throw in a couple of other supposed Irish traits as well, ones which actually do seem to be reflected in societal or collective responses, such as social conservatism, stolidity, a certain passivity in the face of authority. Each or all of these could be used as a vehicle for ruminations upon the Treat referendum as well. But of course they wouldn’t suit the Carlsberg hook – which leads me in a different direction, while it is true that a certain fecklessness has entered the vocabulary of Irish advertising, one that is unpleasantly sneering and competitive (example A: the Cadbury’s Snack advert with overt bullying in it) I think that tells us more about twenty and thirty something ad execs than some underlying malaise in Irish society. Although, I’ll be the first to admit I may be wrong.
And inevitably we move towards apotheosis…
We inherited this trickster mentality from our colonial past, but we’ve had a very hard job leaving it behind.
Did we? Did we indeed? Or could it simply be that in a society of many millions there will be a broad range of human responses none of which can be easily pinned down rather than having to cast back towards contexts which very few of us now have any direct experience of. Which is not to deny the mythic power of the colonial period, but, let’s just say that the experience was probably a lot more mixed in terms of perceptions and indeed acquiescence on the part of a significant portion of the population than the argument O’Toole uses seems to admit.
Culturally, tricksterism has been our great strength – much classic Irish literature is about evading history and weaving a way around the apparent certainties of the English language. But politically, it has been our besetting weakness. It is a mentality that takes weakness and lack of control for granted and sets about dodging a way around them.
We really need a bit more evidence to substantiate this, and certainly more than this minor character trait blown up into an explanation as to why Lisbon was lost. And consider the following… like Waters it dances around the issue rather than tackling it head on. Does O’Toole suggest a clear way through the mess? Does he acknowledge that this is a political and diplomatic problem? He does not. Instead he evades the issue, which is more than ironic considering that this is precisely what he implicitly accuse others of doing by voting No.
This political tricksterism, this art of ducking and diving, of endless evasion, is forgivable in the weak. It expresses a view of the world that has helped to get the oppressed through their miserable days for much of human history. But at what point does a society grow up and realise that it’s not weak anymore? Could we have reached that point now, where we’re actually willing to live with the consequences of the way we’ve voted rather than looking for someone to save us by concocting a phoney plan C?
Or could it be that the column is hooey and that we can look to actual material reasons why people voted Yes and No which depend in no way upon dubious and – arguably – patronising assessments of our national character, like for example a pathetically inept Yes campaign? Sure could!